Thursday, April 23, 2015

Let's talk bout it!

I make no apologies for my opinion about making pots in meat trays for sale. I think it is great to introduce students to clay by means of meat trays, dollies and embossed wall paper or whatever texture available. Perfect intro for beginners. Whatever gets them hooked but then move them on.
I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by fine craft all my life. I ate off Shimoaka plates,  Ed Drahanchuk, Jack Sures, Robin Hopper, John Chalke the entire gammit. I have also had the privilege to have taught at a school that encourages critical dialogue about ceramic art. If a student brought a pot made in a meat tray to a critique students would pay admission to see the horror on 6 faculties faces. My best students have collections of other potters work. They have libraries full to bulging with books on their profession. They can name who made what pot from 50 paces. They attend gallery openings, shows and attend workshops.  They understand and respect the profession. They have not paid 3 years tuition to be told everything they make is "sooooooo pretty." I am more proud of my students accomplishments than my own. They do me proud!
Here is a note I received from Chandler. It is loooooooooong! It is continuing the critical dialoque that I believe is so missing in Art Centers, Guilds and coffee shops across our nation.
Tomorrow we unload Lord Baltimore. I got my fingers, toes and t's crossed.
Take it away, Chandler!


Dear Tony,
we have had some good old chats about this crazy profession ours lately. This new chapter regarding creating an invitational show and what that means to the clay community at large is a complex one and of real interest to me. I told you I would try to distill what it means to me having had experience with it.
So here is some more info and hopefully some clarity on this invitational thing...

11 years ago, after finally deciding that our local guild sale wasnt right for me and my work, for common, simple reasons like:
1.most of the participants were part time potters with other income/professions and really didnt need to earn money from selling their work so they were selling them way too cheaply making mine look too expensive. Their prices simply didnt reflect the reality of what it costs to run a studio and be a full time potter. My sales dropped and dropped over the years.

2. most of the other participants had very little training in the craft, were fairly new at it and as such their pots weren't sufficiently resolved or the kind of work I wanted to be associated with. There was nothing wrong with it. Lots of it was really nice and fun and useful. It just didnt work for me.
( I believe it is organizations like guilds/fusion/etc who do a disservice to most new potters by promoting the implicit understanding that if you have taken a few pottery lessons now you are a pro and you ought to get out there and start selling your work: like that is the next logical step. Then the quality of work at these sales ends up being not the greatest: and then the public starts to equate this quality of work with what hand made ceramics is all about. The last guild sale I went to I looked around the space and saw a sea of Rosies Red and Floating blue pots and I knew a huge percent of these pots had been fired by techs at community centres: Wouldn't it make sense that one criteria of being at a stage to sell work is that you make your own glazes and fire your own work?)

3. I really resented the standards committee thing where often people with little expertise were disqualifying perfectly fine pots for really dumb and WRONG reasons. ( I simply trusted ( and knew full well) that the artists in 260 Fingers would come to the show with incredible well made work and display it in a way that would do the show proud..and of course that is what happened.)

4. there was a certain amount of back stabbing, clique -y-ness, complaining and unfriendliness I witnessed over and over.

5. I really needed a place to show and sell my work!

SO I just marched right out and booked a really nice hall and then INVITED the number of artists I felt the space could hold, assuming they had professional quality exhibition displays AND such a number of artists could pay for what I figured the show might cost.
I reached out to the other ceramicists, (mostly friends or at least acquaintances) in a radius around Ottawa who I knew had the same issues as me with the guild sale paradigm or those who were only showing at more far flung shows or not at all due to a lack of a venue for them as full time professionals with a certain reputation for making “good”? “resolved” ? “critically acclaimed”?? clay art.
There was a nice symbiosis in that there were 26 artists initially invited and the hall held us all well, with a decent amount of room to show the work properly and our fees paid for the show.
We formed a non-profit corporation. I was willing to be nominally the “director” as we needed to have a board and an AGM etc which we have in the form of an amazing potluck lunch in an art filled home of of one of members.
The big point to stress here is that from the get-go we have the most fun, problem solve in a very positive, supportive way, help and encourage each other and have formed a very special bond. We are so happy for each others successes and adventures and really step up when one of us needs help in tough times...it is such a delight to know this group and ply our craft in such a respectful, thoughtful, cheerful manner.
On our website is an article called Umbutu referring to what makes our show special. It was written by 260 Fingers member Paula Murray and was published in Ceramics Technical recently. You can see that link at www.260fingers.ca .
Each year there is room for guest artists and we try to bring in new voices in clay from Quebec and south, central and western Ontario. We have had amazing guest artists which will be going up on our site soon.

Now I will address the overstated issue of backlash...I never felt hated for doing this although I heard there was some grumbling to begin with in some quarters. I kinda figured some noses would be out of joint but probably wouldn't stay that way for long. I really couldn't concern myself with that. And after all, MY nose was out of joint at the dumbing down of the craft and the elevation of mediocrity that was so pervasive and accepted.
However this is how I make my living. It was a huge necessity to create a place to show and sell my work that was appropriate for me and we do live in a region of over a million people: I figured there might be room for more than one pottery sale!! It didnt hurt to be in surrounded by artists whose work I admire.
On the opening night of our first show, there was a huge lineup! I was watching closely to see how folks were reacting. It was interesting. I think they were expecting the same kind of experience as going to a regular pottery sale. Well, the expression on the faces of these visitors was priceless. They were literally gobsmacked to be in that place surrounded with display after display of excellent ceramic art and pottery. First they were very quiet, then got their bearings and then the roar and excitment in the place was wild!
Funnily not a lot of our guild members of whom there are many, have come to see the show. Its interesting. I did see a few upside down smiles on a few familiar faces but that quickly changed. It was like they were inwardly saying> “so this is what you were talking about”.
However lots and lots of my students and other potters I know have told me again and again what a joy this show/sale is. They don't feel its elitist or arrogant. They see what its about.
Its not about exclusion. Its just different.
My primary objective was to provide a venue for artists who have worked hard to become noted in the craft. I hope that in creating 260 Fingers, the show has inspired a few clay artists to up their game...I want to create a bar for aspiring artists to rise to.
I feel this has been lacking in Fusion. I really hope a potential invitational show for recognized professionals will create new dialogue and new energy for this organization.
There are so few good places to see really terrific clay art, and let me tell you: seeing a whole bunch of it in one place is quite fantastic! Its a gift to the clay community.
I have heard through the grapevine that 260 Fingers is one of the most anticipated events on the Ottawa arts calendar. I am now seeing some of the more rarified curators, gallery owners etc who usually don't even recognize craft as worth their time coming to the show: often more than once in a weekend.
I am completely unapologetic about having helped get this show off the ground.
I would love to chat with anyone who is having trouble with this. I hope to be invited to any INVITATIONAL show run under the Fusion Banner. And if I'm not, I'll still be there looking for that perfect irresistible object I cant live with out. Yum yum.
Best wishes everyone.
Chandler Swain in Almonte, On

5 comments:

carter gillies said...

Its so hard to talk about this stuff without either coming across as chauvinist and elitist or as indifferent and relativist. Every time you say one thing matters more than others you close some doors. Every time you say that you're trying to not be exclusive you at least attempt to keep some doors open.

But it doesn't seem like there's an easy middle ground that both respects other points of view and praises its own. Chandler seems like an open-minded sort from that email, but it does seem like he wants to have his cake and eat it too. Yes there are differences between folks who try to make a living at this art thing and those who do it as a hobby, but to use anything along those lines as a criteria only expresses one bias over others.

Some of the 'professional' work on the website would never find its way into a show I curated, even with the mandate that it had been made by professionals. Its because I CARE about other things. If your mugs have handles that are perfunctory or seem like an afterthought I will have little time for you. If your work shows that you only care about form as a surface to put decoration on I will have little time for you.

Its not that this work is necessarily 'bad' or not 'excellent' in some other way, its just that my interests are for considered and well made handles and forms that stand on their own. And I would choose that work every time if asked.

Like you Tony, I'm not making apologies, but what I am trying to say is that different makers are playing by different rules. They care about different things and they care less about others. Maybe you won't like everything other makers make, but we can sometimes learn new things from how they are looking at the world. If its not your cup of tea, that's okay. To each their own.

As an educator you are teaching students to care about these specific 'standards'. These are the things that matter in an academic setting. And amazingly not all art departments agree on those standards. They care about sometimes contradictory things. Just don't pretend that one preference has the objective superiority over others. They are not always playing the same game, so how would you judge between them?

Is chess better than checkers? Is checkers better than Monopoly? Is Monopoly better than Bridge? Is Bridge better than skipping rope? Is skipping rope better than rugby? Is rugby better than chess? Anything you choose reveals more about you than it does about the world at large. So don't apologize for liking roller derby. Just don't tell me that's what I'm supposed to like as well.....

Ashley said...

I think I might be straying off the safely cleared path and into a dangerous mine field, but what are opinions for if you can't express them. Here it goes.

I took issue with a few of the points in this post and thought I would chime in.

1) Being a professional potter does not mean you need to do it full time - Everybody's circumstances are different and just because you have an entirely different job that pays your bills, doesn't mean that you should be doomed to only be a hobbyist selling your pots out of a church basement.
My situation, as it is the most familiar to me, is this: I have been making pots for 14+ years and I consider myself a professional potter. I have a full time job that is not related to clay, I work weekends at the local clay supplier and I teach wheel thrown pottery once a week. in addition, I spend approx. 10 - 20 hours in the studio a week making my own work. It's not full time, but it is as full time as it is going to get right now. I have found that many a Full Time potter will neglect to mention that their partner/spouse pays the mortgage etc. with their wage earning job. I am single and I work at my day job because I have a mortgage, I have a car payment, I eat food, and I like to occasionally buy new clothes. I get paid "in kind" for teaching, so I don't pay money to fire a kiln, but I do pay in terms of my time. The clay supplier job helps support the ever increasing supply costs so I can actually afford to buy materials.

2) Training- All potters need to learn how to make good work, but not all of the best teachers or the best education can be found inside the walls of an ivory tower. I have been witness to new graduates with their BFA in ceramics come in to the clay shop without the ability to formulate their own glaze, we end up teaching them that. I may not be the best potter out there, but I know I am not the worst, not by a long shot and I never went to art college. I learned from potters who have been in the business for 35+ years, from every book I could get my hands on, anything the internet had to offer (with the requisite grain of salt of course), by asking questions and mostly by just pushing as much clay through my own 2 hands as possible. As for the students that I teach, I would never discourage them from participating in OUR sale, but I would NEVER tell them that they are now pros and to start submitting work to galleries and shows, unless they were ceramic savants of course

3) Standards, yes, we should all have them. After we get past the most basic and obvious ones, like no pinholes, cracks, food safety issues, does it weight 10 pounds when it should only be 1 lb, etc, then by whose standards are we judging the pots? I have seen customers line up mugs and place a ruler on top. If any are too short or too tall by a fraction of an inch, they will not buy them. Then there are the ones that come armed with paint chips and fabric swatches. So long as the glaze matches their sofa, they will buy it, regardless of the actual quality. Invitational shows sound great, but what if the organizers don't know you and you are really, really good? I am of two minds about juried shows, as the juror is going to have a natural bias. They do however offer an opportunity for anyone to at least try entering. The gate is still there, but it seems less impenetrable than the invitation only shows.

4) Cliques and general petty behavior is something I don't have time for either.

5) Venues - I sell at our studio sales without fail, various galleries in town and a few other craft shows. I pick and choose based on how much foot traffic a location has, the customer base etc. But just because my quality may be better than some of the others at our studio sale is not a reason to not participate, it is all the more reason to stick around as a possible carrot for the rest to strive to reach

Just my thoughts from the trenches out here in the Wild West.


Newfoundout Potter said...

What is wrong with the Fusion juried show? Chandler seems to think that they should have an invitational show, but to me that would often miss out on the new and the creative aspect of a show. Those invited would be established potters and though they produce great work is is often the same year after year. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
However I always look forward to the Fireworks exhibit to get inspired. Both types of exhibits rely on the juror's opinion - so why not open it up and let new ideas flow!

Lee Love said...

Passion and character are the only things that count. To paraphrase Hamada: Artist have bullshit, but the craftsman has only his character.

maggie said...

carter gillies... I think you overlooked a n important phrase: "potters with other income/professions and really didnt need to earn money from selling their work so they were selling them way too cheaply making mine look too expensive" This is an issue we have in North Carolina. I find this conversation very relevant, thank you Tony.